Testing travellers for coronavirus is set to replace the imposition of blanket quarantines under plans to be discussed by Cabinet ministers next week, with the news coming as Heathrow unveiled a purpose-built testing centre.
Ministers are due to meet on Monday to consider options including testing passengers between five and 10 days after their arrival to enable them to shorten their 14-day self-isolation if the results are negative.
On Tuesday, Heathrow announced that an airside Covid-19 testing centre in Terminal Two was ready to swab its first passengers, for £150 a time,once the Government gives the green light to a trial. It plans a second centre in Terminal Five next month.
Airports, airline bosses and travel industry chiefs have warned that testing is the only way to open up travel to and from "high-risk" countries such as the US and end uncertainty for holidaymakers hit by quarantines reimposed at short notice on countries including France and Spain.
France is expected to announce a "tit-for-tat" 14-day quarantine of Britons arriving in the country, while Croatia could be removed from the UK "green list" in the next 48 hours (see graphic below for which countries could see quarantines imposed) after being placed on special watch due to a surge in virus cases.
John Holland-Kaye, Heathrow's chief executive, said testing was the only viable alternative to quarantine, adding: "A lot of countries that are 'red-listed' have millions of people who don't have the disease but can't travel. That's holding back economic recovery."
Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, and the Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove are expected to consider three options on Monday – the status quo, double testing of passengers and a single test after a period of quarantine.
With the double test, passengers would be swabbed on arrival and then at five or eight days by the NHS, after which they would be freed from quarantine if negative. A single test would come after five to 10 days – similar to a scheme launched by Iceland on Tuesday.
A change in the quarantine regulations will be needed to allow those who test negative to be released from self-isolation.
Modelling by Sage, the Government's scientific advisers, found that 85 per cent of cases would be picked up if passengers were tested at five days, rising to 96 per cent at eight days. This compared to just seven per cent if there was only testing on arrival.
Heathrow cited Jersey, which uses the same PCR test on arrival and claims not to have had a single false negative so far. Germany and France have also already introduced compulsory tests for international arrivals from "high-risk" countries.
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Paul Charles, the chief executive of travel consultancy the PC Agency, said the UK risked being left behind and could not "rely on quarantine" (listen to the podcast above on which countries could face restrictions).
"The Government must prepare for living with Covid," he said. "You can't rely on quarantine, otherwise the economy will never recover. Other countries are progressing on testing. There is a risk of the UK regressing."
The Cabinet committee will also consider "regional air corridors" where people could travel quarantine-free to "low-risk" regions or islands like the Canaries in otherwise "high-risk" countries.
Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the Tory backbench 1922 committee, said: "The Canary Islands alone are equivalent to Manchester Airport's third biggest country market and are below the threshold of concern.
"Getting a regional corridor for the Canary Islands alone would salvage at least some of the summer trade. There is a suggestion that it could be signed off by a Cabinet subcommittee that doesn't meet until August 24.
"But every week of delay is costing jobs and threatening the viability of businesses. There is an obvious case for regional travel corridors, but action needs to be taken now."
A Government spokesman said: "International arrivals from non-exempt countries must quarantine for the full 14 days, whether they get tested or not, as the incubation period for the virus means passengers may pose a risk to other passengers, loved ones and close contacts.
“Work is ongoing with clinicians, the devolved administrations and the travel industry to consider if and how testing could be used to reduce the self-isolation period, but any potential change would need to minimise the chance that positive cases are missed, and maximise compliance with self-isolation rules.”